The Final Four (this Saturday in Detroit!) is a trademarked NCAA term that denotes the four basketball teams left standing on the precipice of a national championship. Making it there is almost as difficult as making a great record. To do it more than once is magical – and to reach that goal four times is mystical – as it takes a great run of talent, timing and good fortune. UCLA won 10 NCAA titles in 12 seasons from 1964 to 1975, an unbelievable run that may be the equivalent of The Beatles, Stones and Dylan’s astonishing 60’s-70’s creative streaks. It just doesn’t happen anymore.
Aristotle held that there are four causes in nature, four things that answer the question why a thing is – the material cause, the formal cause, the efficient cause and the final cause. St. Joe’s often ran a “four corners” offense with great skill as they knocked off bigger and more skilled basketball teams. Baseball’s ultimate play is a home run, or four-bagger. Basketball’s highest scoring play is a four point play (a three and a foul shot). The number 4 gave birth to albums by Foreigner (4), Blues Traveller (Four), Miles Davis (Four!) and Led Zeppelin (IV… and yes I know it’s those stupid symbols). There is the Fab Four, the Four Tops, the Gang of Four, the quartet that practiced in the park and the prototypical rock band lineup of four members.
There are the Four Horsemen (of Notre Dame and of The Apocalypse), the Fantastic Four, Four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and four teams that have had their defensive lines nicknamed the Fearsome Foursome (the ’57 Giants, the ’62 Lions, the ’63 Chargers and the ’65 Rams). There are four seasons (winter, summer, spring, fall, winter), The Four Seasons (“Sherry”), “Four Seasons” (Vivaldi), The Four Seasons (hotel) and The Four Seasons (a 1981 rom-com), not to mention the gorgeous “Four Seasons in One Day” by Crowded House.
Four is the smallest composite number. The Greek word for four, tetra, inspired Tetris, my favorite video game (I will kick your ass). There are four human blood groups, four suits in cards, you can use 4 in place of four or for when texting, four wheels make us go, four directions tell us where to go and who among us doesn’t love to utter the occasional four letter word.
And that brings us to the daunting task of picking artists with four great albums, a totally subjective exercise in examining productivity and fleeting artistic achievement. There really aren’t that many that have made four GREAT records – many have made one, two or three, but four is a difficult mountain to climb. And the ones that did seemed to do it in 3, 4 or 5 year bursts. Genius (at least when it comes to making records) is fleeting and the muse seems to leave just as quickly as it arrives. So a special nod to Tom Waits and John Prine for spacing out their greatness over 20 years.
One ground rule – only artists who made their first record AFTER 1970 are considered, so no Beatles, no Stones, Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, The Band, Johnny Cash, Kinks, Van Morrison, Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin, etc – that list would just be too long.
So after much internal deliberation and debate, here are twenty (plus one) that gave us four (or a couple more).
1. Jackson Browne – Jackson Browne (1972), For Everyman (1973), Late For The Sky (1974), The Pretender (1976)
2. Cheap Trick – Cheap Trick (1977), In Color (1977), Heaven Tonight (1978), Dream Police (1979)
3. Elvis Costello (bonus greatness) – My Aim is True (1977), This Year’s Model (1978), Armed Forces (1979), Get Happy! (1980), Trust (1981), Imperial Bedroom (1982), King of America (1986)
4. Steve Earle – Guitar Town (1986), Copperhead Road (1988), I Feel Alright (1996), Transcendental Blues (2000)
5. Elton John (bonus greatness) - Elton John (1970), Madman Across the Water (1971), Tumbleweed Connection (1971), Honky Château (1972), Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player (1973), Goodbye Yellowbrick Road (1973), Captain Fantastic (1975)
6. The Hold Steady – Almost Killed Me (2004), Separation Sunday (2005), Boys And Girls in America (2006), Stay Positive (2008)
7. Husker Du – Zen Arcade (1984), New Day Rising (1985), Flip Your Wig (1985), Warehouse: Songs And Stories (1987)
8. The Jam – In The City (1977), All Mod Cons (1978), Setting Sons (1979), Sound Affects (1980)
9. Los Lobos – How Will The Wolf Survive? (1984), By The Light of The Moon (1987), The Neighborhood (1990), Kiko (1992)
9. Graham Parker – Howlin Wind (1976), Heat Treatment (1976), Stick To Me (1977), Squeezing Out Sparks (1979)
10. Prince – Dirty Mind (1980), 1999 (1983), Purple Rain (1984), Sign O’ The Times (1987)
11. John Prine – John Prine (1971), Sweet Revenge (1973), Bruised Orange (1978), The Missing Years (1991)
12. The Ramones – The Ramones (1976), Leave Home (1977), Rocket to Russia (1977), Road to Ruin (1978)
13. REM – Murmur (1983), Reckoning (1984), Document (1987), Automatic For The People (1992)
14. The Replacements – Hootenanny (1983), Let It Be (1984), Tim (1985), Pleased To Meet Me (1987)
15. RUN-DMC – Run-DMC (1984), King of Rock (1985), Raising Hell (1986), Tougher Than Leather (1988)
16. Bruce Springsteen (bonus greatness) – Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ (1973), The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle (1973), Born to Run (1975), Darkness On The Edge of Town (1978), The River (1980), Nebraska (1982), Born in The USA (1984)
17. Talking Heads – Talking Heads ’77 (1977), More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978), Fear of Music (1979), Remain in Light (1980)
18. U2 – Boy (1980), War (1983), The Joshua Tree (1987), Achtung Baby (1991)
19. Tom Waits – Closing Time (1973), Swordfishtrombones (1983), Rain Dogs (1985), Bone Machine (1992)
20. X – Los Angeles (1980), Wild Gift (1981), Under The Big Black Sun (1982), More Fun in The New World (1983)
I know it’s heavy on 70’s and 80’s, so tell me who I missed. And for the record, I’ve got Wilco and Radiohead with three.